When Rick Pennypacker took over as Pottsgrove football coach back in 1989, not a lot of folks knew what to expect.
Falcons assistant Mike Tomasso, however, sensed something out of the ordinary about the new hire.
“Right off the bat, when he applied and was accepted, I knew he was special,’ said Tomasso, who had been on the Pottsgrove staff for the previous eight seasons. “He was talking about things and using terminology that had my head spinning. It was something where you could just tell, this is a coach.’
Over the past 26 seasons, anyone who has been associated with or followed Pioneer Athletic Conference football has come to the same realization.
Pennypacker’s Pottsgrove resume includes 211 career victories, nine PAC-10 titles, two District 1-AAA crowns and hundreds of players he helped mold into successful student-athletes.
Tuesday, the 60-year-old Pennypacker will receive a well-deserved induction into the Montgomery County Coaches Hall of Fame at its annual banquet at Westover Country Club.
“Rick has put Pottsgrove football on the proverbial map in the PAC-10 and throughout District 1,’ said Gary DeRenzo, the school’s athletic director. “He eats, sleeps and breathes football throughout the spring, summer and fall. There are not too many people who I’ve met in my 26 years in athletics that love to compete more than him.’
“I think what makes Rick special is simply his passion for the game,’ echoed current Falcons offensive coordinator Bill Hawthorne, who played for Pennypacker from 1990-92. “Everyone sees him on the sidelines, how animated and how into the game he is. But in reality, he’s like that at spring practice. He’s as intense right now as he was back when he started, and that’s what’s made him so successful.’
As has a constant mantra Pennypacker’s preached throughout his career.
“He goes by a philosophy and has stuck by it all these years,’ Tomasso said. “He tells kids, ‘ We’re going to work harder than everybody else,’ and ingrains in the kids’ heads that if they work harder than everybody else they’ll be successful.’
That message is taught from the time the Falcons take part in their traditional preseason camp until the pressure-packed parts of the postseason.
And though decidedly old-school, Pennypacker isn’t averse to new ideas, according to his field generals.
“He’s always learning football,’ Hawthorne said. “The guy probably has forgotten more football than most people know, but he just keeps learning and constantly evolves, and that’s one of the most impressive things about him.
“He respects the coaching profession, and he teaches his coaches like he does his players.’
* * *
Pennypacker’s competitive nature and passion for sports was fostered during his early days growing up in Royersford.
He played football — where he was a star offensive lineman and linebacker for Spring-Ford — but was also a stalwart on the baseball diamond and on the basketball court.
“There was a time I thought my career was going to be in baseball,’ Pennypacker admitted. “But I found out I wasn’t as good as I thought. I was a right-handed pitcher, and could throw the ball pretty hard, but a lot of times I didn’t know where it was going.
“Even up until the spring of my senior year, after I had signed my (football) scholarship to West Virginia, I was still thinking of playing baseball. Then I went to a tryout camp, and all I saw was balls leaving the park — bang, bang, guys hitting home runs all over the place on me. My dad (Richard) looked at me and said, ‘ You better stick to football.”
That proved to be a wise choice.
At West Virginia, Pennypacker played on the offensive line for a squad coached by future Florida State head man Bobby Bowden, the winningest coach in NCAA Division I history.
“I’ve been fortunate, and think I’m the exception rather than the norm, but I honestly never played for a bad coach in my life,’ Pennypacker said. “I consider myself a product of my environment in Royersford, and I had some great coaches down there — guys like Merle Bainbridge, Jerry Seislove, Bob McNelly, Bobby Stipa. And when I went to West Virginia, all my assistant coaches were top-notch guys and I was able to play for the greatest coach in the history of college football.’
After Pennypacker closed out his collegiate career in the 1976 Peach Bowl, he was offered a job by Bowden — who had just taken the Florida State job — as a graduate assistant.
“But I got engaged three weeks before Christmas and called my fiancee (now his wife, Anne) and said, ‘ I was offered a job at Florida State,’ and she said, ‘ I’m not going to Florida,’ and then I said, ‘ Well I’m not going either.’ I made the right decision, because I always wanted to coach high school football.’
* * *
You could say Pennypacker began his high school coaching career at the bottom floor, at Pocahontas County High School in West Virginia.
“I had a great time,’ he recalled. “I did everything: mowed the grass, lined the field, drove the bus to the games. That taught me a lot.’
As did a not-so-successful stint at Warren County (Va.) a few years later, where Pennypacker said he “fell flat on his face,’ and wound up resigning as coach and taking an assistant athletic director position.
But his passion for coaching became rekindled shortly thereafter when Pennypacker accepted an assistant position at James Wood High School in Winchester, Va., under highly-respected veteran Dick Harmison.
“The time I spent there was the greatest two years of my coaching career,’ he said. “I learned all the tricks of the trade, but I never knew the whole trade of coaching. I didn’t know how to game plan, didn’t know about treating kids right and didn’t know how to get into kids’s heads.’
“Working under (Harmison) taught me more about coaching in two years than I learned in 35 years.’
* * *
After his father passed away in 1985, Pennypacker began to yearn to return home to be closer to his family.
And when the Pottsgrove football job opened up after the 1988 season, he didn’t hesitate to apply.
“I learned my lessons in Virginia,’ he said. “And I knew what not to do when I came here.’
What Pennypacker did do was transform the Falcons from a squad that had gone 23-70-1 in the eight years prior to his arrival to back-to-back PAC-10 champions in his second and third years at the helm.
“His first year, we only had six seniors and one of them was a kid who just came out that year,’ Tomasso said of an ‘ 89 campaign in which the Falcons went 0-8-1 in league play and 2-8-1 overall. “We only had 29 total kids on the team, but our junior and sophomore classes worked hard. And even with those numbers, we were in every game until the fourth quarter.’
“One thing Harmison told me was, ‘ You don’t need to light a fire under kids, you need to light a fire within kids,” said Pennypacker, who teaches physical education at Pottsgrove. “So what I wanted to do when I got here was make these kids understand they had to have a passion for football. It wasn’t just something they played; it was a passion.’
The Falcons turned the corner in ‘ 90, when they went 8-0-1 to bring home their first PAC-10 crown in a 9-1-1 overall season. They repeated as league champs the following year, going 7-2 the PAC-10 and 9-2 overall.
“He knew that he knew football, he was excited about it, and he got Pottsgrove excited about it,’ Hawthorne said. “You just kind of saw it build.’
And through the years, it has continued to build under Pennypacker’s watch — with the Falcons counting just three sub-.500 seasons since Pennypacker’s rookie year.
There were league titles in 2000, 2001, 2003, 2008, 2009, 2012 and 2013. District 1-AAA championships in 2009 and 2011. And gaudy marks of 58-5 in league play over the past seven seasons and 87-17 overall over the past eight years.
There have also been a plethora of prominent players throughout Pennypacker’s tenure, from talents such as Brian Allen, Chris Beasley, Eric Reginer, Brent Steinmetz and Joey Cotter to more recent standouts like Brent Carter, Terrell Chestnut, Tory Hudgins, Maika Polamalu, Preston Hamlette and Kayvon Green to current stars Patrick Finn and Mike Fowler.
“One thing that makes me very proud is that three of my former players (Hawthorne, Josh Ford and Preston Moser) are coaching with me now on our varsity,’ Pennypacker said.
Pennypacker also takes pride in the future
“The most rewarding thing for me is when I see a kid five years after he graduates and that he has made it and become a success,’ Pennypacker said. “To me, that’s more important than wins and losses. When I first came here, it was all about wins and losses, but as you get older and see kids that are doctors and lawyers — kids that when they were in high school didn’t understand about hard work and everything — and now they’re leaders in the community and in their profession, or they’re coaches or administrators, it’s a great feeling.’
* * *
Pennypacker’s most memorable Falcons moments run the emotional gamut.
There was the 1990 showdown of league unbeatens against Spring-Ford (his alma mater) that would decide the PAC-10 title.
“The place was mobbed with fans and we pulled out a victory that started a celebration like I have never seen before,’ recalled Pennypacker of the 17-0 win. “Our fans and students stormed the field, and it led to our first PAC-10 title.
There was the bittersweet encounter with Spring-Ford in 1999, when Pennypacker’s Falcons squared off with a Rams team in which his eldest son, Ross, was a star linebacker.
“That was one of the hardest things I had to do as a coach,’ said Pennypacker, whose squad fell 19-14 that day. “I wanted him to do well and play well, but at the same time I wanted us to win. The hard thing was that I found myself watching him on the field rather than watching my own players. The week leading up to the game was the worst; we didn’t talk to each other all week. I was very proud of the way he handled himself during that time.’
Pennypacker also vividly remembers back in 2003, when his mother, Doris, passed away and his entire team attended the funeral.
“That meant so much to me,’ he said.
And gave a glimpse of how much he has meant to the generations of players he’s influenced.
“Coach?’ said Fowler. “He’s like a team father.’
* * *
While walking the halls of Pottsgrove last week, Pennypacker told a visitor that he plans to continue coaching “until it starts to feel like a job and isn’t fun anymore.’
“But I’m not there yet,’ he said. “The thing that a lot of people don’t realize is that I have great support here. A great administration, great parents and the best coaches. Some of those guys have been with me since I got here: Mike Tomasso, Jim Algeo. They’ve all made me look good.
“When you’ve got good parents, good people and that kind of greatness around you, that’s how you get in the Hall of Fame. If (Perkiomen Valley coach) Scott Reed was here, he’d be in the Hall of Fame. If (Spring-Ford’s) Chad Brubaker was here, he’d be in the Hall of Fame. I don’t think I’m anything special. I think I’m the product of all the other good things around me.’
Pennypacker’s contribution to the Pottsgrove program is so respected that the school named its field after him in a dedication ceremony prior to this year’s opener.
“Although the game has evolved in many ways, Rick’s philosophy has not changed, and that’s really what I admire about him,’ DeRenzo said. “Our teams will always be prepared, we will be disciplined, we will compete, we will be good sportsmen and everyone on the team will be a part of the team. He doesn’t care about individual statistics or personal accomplishments — it’s all about the team and the kids on the team. He does not get distracted by what I will call ‘ the other stuff’ that often makes scholastic coaching difficult in today’s culture. He has been — and continues to be — a positive teacher, coach and mentor at Pottsgrove.’
One with Hall of Fame credentials when it comes to Montgomery County.
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